Uncovering Purpose for Outsized Results
Is purpose just a motivating tag line or can it be a playbook for industry-beating financial success? In our recent conversation with Jeff Hilimire, Co-Founder and CEO of Purpose Group, we focused on how purpose drives exponential returns for business and people alike.
Jeff offers concrete examples of how a purpose-driven strategy helps people feel excited about their work, connected by something greater than themselves and supported to live their best lives.
Whether you are running a start-up or a decades old profitable business, Jeff details purpose as the key ingredient for any business interested in achieving outsized business results while operating as a force for good in the world.
To get us started, tell us about your latest venture Purpose Group?
We call ourselves a purpose driven holding company. Basically, we’re like private equity in that we acquire companies but unlike private equity in that we want to hold them forever. What’s also different from typical private equity is we have an operating model that’s centered around purpose as the lifeblood of the company.
The shared vision of the advisory board and the founding perspective is that we all believe that business should be a force for good in the world, and that a way to do that is to create more purpose-driven companies that achieve outsized success. And if we prove companies can achieve this success mostly because of our purpose playbook, that might show other business leaders the value in this approach.
Why get everyone involved in “uncovering” a company’s purpose?
Here’s an example, we bought our first company in May. Gerald Printing is a print, apparel and signs company out of Kentucky with ninety great hardworking people. What we liked about the business was the strength of the business itself, but the company has never had any sort of defined purpose.
The first part of our process is to make sure that there’s trust within the leadership team. Trust and purpose are things that I think must become part of your standard operating procedure.
Next, we’ll get the entire company together for a workshop that will help everybody contribute and find why they think this company is important to the world, and why they think their work can make a positive impact on the world.
Purpose is a company’s reason for being. You want to create a purpose that is approachable from every aspect of the company, from every level of the company. It’s not just leadership. You want everybody to feel like they can impact the purpose otherwise, what’s the point? Otherwise, it becomes something in your lobby or on your annual report, and less part of the company.
We’re not putting their purpose in; we’re helping people who know the company uncover the true purpose of a company.
How do you find purpose when it isn’t obvious? Can you find purpose in any company and any industry?
The best example I have is from Dragon Army. I started Dragon Army in 2013 and it’s a digital agency that builds websites, mobile apps, helps other companies with their marketing. As we started to try to figure out our purpose as a company, it became hard for me to believe that our end result work had to be exactly tied to our purpose.
Instead, we looked internally, and asked, ‘can the way we operate the company become our purpose?’
We decided purpose can be as simple as making the lives of our team members better. If they feel proud of what they do there’ll be a ripple effect from that when they interact with each other, customers and out in the community. And we landed on Inspire Happiness.
So inspiring happiness is woven throughout the entire company. For example, can we look for ways to surprise and delight people with what we build? Can there be a little thing you do that makes someone smile when you’re working together?
Living out the purpose at Dragon Army means looking for ways to inspire happiness and recognize it. For instance, we have something called “Acknowledgments” which happens at every company wide meeting. At the end of the meeting, there’s a forum for anyone to recognize anyone else. I would say 50% of the time somebody’s in tears thanking someone for what they did for them. We’ve had somebody on vacation dial into our monthly meeting, saying, “I’m going to be on mute. But I’m going to come back during acknowledgments because there’s four people I must acknowledge.”
The impact of Dragon Army’s purpose has been crazy. We’ve had more than one person start, and say they thought they had joined a cult because they had never seen people act like this at a company.
So, purpose isn’t an inspiring statement or a tagline?
No, not at all. Now, we do work hard to get the phrasing right. We want the purpose to be memorable. It’s not like long value statements that nobody can remember. The world is full of companies that have done the work to uncover a purpose and six months later, nobody remembers it. It was just a sign on a wall. That’s the worst thing.
I tell leaders that it will be worse if we go through this process, and then you do nothing with it. I’d rather you just don’t do it at all. You must execute on this.
You must find ways to continually reinforce it. Starting with a trusting leadership team and then, how do you make this an authentic part of your standard operating procedure and bring everybody in the company together with goals that we’re all going after. You create alignment so that you can’t walk down the hall and grab any random employee and they know their role in the goals for the year.
I think when you have a true purpose that is woven throughout the company, and the team believes in it that will drive a certain type of culture, and you’ll begin to build more empathy, camaraderie when everyone feels like you’re moving towards something significant.
Purpose becomes the driving force behind the culture.
In a company’s hierarchy of needs, where does purpose fall? Dare we say, is there a relationship between purpose and profitability?
I’m not going to be so naive to say that purpose is the most important thing at a company. We talk about the importance of a healthy profit margin, of being able to grow so that we can give people opportunities to continue to grow in their careers. All these things we want to do drive our purpose forward. But it’s important to have that baseline of stability. Otherwise, you’re constantly on fire, and in a panic. So, you need a sound business model, and you need to have found your way to profitability before you focus on anything around purpose.
Just having a purpose is not going to solve your profitability problem. But my thesis for Purpose Group is grounded on the belief that if you take a team of people and help them be proud and excited about their work, you’re going to achieve much more than you would otherwise, from a profit perspective, from a growth perspective, from any sort of financial metric you can use.
I get the question a lot from people when I talk about Purpose Group, they say “so it’s a social enterprise and maybe you’ll make returns for your shareholders but really you’re just helping people.” And I answer that it’s just the opposite. I would not be doing this if I wasn’t trying to prove that companies will achieve far more success financially, industry beating success, by living out their purpose.
How can purpose help with productivity in this new era of hybrid work? Can you accomplish purpose when you’re not together?
Purpose alone can’t necessarily help productivity, but when you package it all together with trust, it can do amazing things.
Here’s my best example: I go back to Dragon Army. In 2023, Dragon Army’s CEO Jenn Leahy let me know they were studying the idea of a four-day work week. My first question was, “So you mean four, 10-hour days, right?” She meant four 8-hour days with no working on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. Seemed impossible but I was happy to be proven wrong.
August of 2023 was the first month that that they tried it and it was Dragon Army’s most profitable month ever. It was incredible. The hard work of getting ready for only working four days pushed them to streamline and really get efficient. And now, six months later, the company is fully remote with a four-day work week with no pay cuts.
Before 2020, we were a fully in-person company. I believe the reason that Dragon Army was able to move efficiently and successfully into fully remote and then to 4 days fully remote, is because there’s this purpose that ties everyone together. There’s a trust around that purpose, and there’s an operating system that guides it all, so that when someone new comes in, they’re infused with this vibe that exists at the company, and everybody’s talking about it, and everybody’s reinforcing it.
The productivity driver is less around hours and more around your own sense of personal contribution to the purpose. If you make a shift to where people are proud of their contribution, they’re going to give you their all versus just putting in the hours, whether it’s at the water cooler or remote.
Lessons Learned: How a Vending Machine Became a Guide to Leadership
This is going to sound silly, but the lessons were important. At my first company, we had this one vending machine. The teams didn’t like the vending selections, so they started bringing in their own mini fridges. Each team had their own fridge. Fast forward, and the vending guy lets me know he can’t keep serving the machine because we aren’t buying enough product.
For the betterment of the whole company, I told my leadership the teams can’t have their own little mini fridges. We’ll put what they want in the machine and make it cheaper. For the next month, there were a lot of people in the company that were just snippy with me, and I couldn’t figure out what is happening. Finally, I got one person to speak up. And he’s like, “We’re sort all aggravated because we’re becoming so corporate around here. You wouldn’t even let us have our own mini fridges. The whole culture is changing because you guys are trying to become big time or something.”
Here’s what I learned — over communicate, have conversations, create an atmosphere where people can speak up. I didn’t communicate well enough the why behind my decision, nor did I involve enough people. If we had opened it up at a company meeting and talked about it, we probably would have come up with a better solution and half the team wouldn’t have been aggravated for a month.
The other lesson was around importance of building trust starting in the leadership team. My immediate leadership team knew why I made the decision but presumably wasn’t bought in. It reinforced the importance of creating space for a leadership team to debate and then leave the meeting in lock step. I think it’s such a great silly example. But imagine the seeds of distrust that can form on something bigger?